Breaking the stigma of suicide

NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) – It is one of the last great taboos in our culture: Suicide. It goes against our primal survival instincts and moral and religious teachings, but one local community is breaking the silence and sending a message of hope.

Perhaps you have seen the red ribbons all over the Larchmont area of Norfolk or on Facebook. The red ribbons are for Sarah Peterson, and they are breaking the silence of suicide.

Photos: Red ribbons for Sarah

With her bright blonde hair and a smile that lit up a room, Sarah seemed to have it all.

“We’re so fortunate to have had her for 15 years and she was such a wonderful, wonderful daughter,” said Eric Peterson.

Sarah was a track star, honor roll student and had recently received the Girl Scout’s highest award.  She had friends, everywhere.

“I think we found out the extent of that even more at her funeral when we were overwhelmed by the support of so many different groups of people,” said Michelle Peterson, Sarah’s mother.

By all accounts, her parents did all they could.

“We really feel if we had more time with the treatment, we would have gotten there,” Eric told WAVY.com.

It all happened so fast. The family had no inkling anything was wrong until December, when Michelle opened Sarah’s bedroom door to say ‘goodnight.’

“I was just going to say ‘I’m going to bed now, good night, I love you,’ and she was cutting her arm,” said Michelle.

Immediately, they got Sarah help. She stayed in acute care for eight days while her parents and doctors created a treatment plan. Just weeks later, on Jan. 16, Sarah hanged herself at home. Eric found her in her bedroom.

“I’m just sad for her that she had to feel such pain, such pain that she felt there was no way out of it other than to take her life,” he said.

Sarah did not die right away. Rescue workers restarted her heart, and rushed her to the hospital.

It was then, in the family’s darkest hours, something bright and wonderful happened.

“We’ve had red ribbons strung up throughout Larchmont just red, red, red,” said Madison Finke, a friend.

Sarah’s favorite color popped up everywhere: Hundreds of ribbons on front doors, and trees. First in Norfolk, then around the world via Facebook.

“The red ribbons are obviously the very outward visible symbol of the caring that has been offered to us,” said Michelle.

All of those different groups Sarah had touched now wanted to help. Initially, the red ribbons were a sign of hope for Sarah’s survival but weeks after her death, most remain. They are piquing curiosity and encouraging conversations that were once considered taboo.

“We’ve had very frank conversations about it and that’s what parents should be doing with their kids,” said Dawn Peters, a friend.

The red ribbons now symbolize a new hope. The Petersons are creating a foundation in Sarah’s name to address education and research for teen depression.

“Nothing will bring Sarah back, we know that, or make it better for us, but truly if it can keep any other family from going through this that would be a good thing,” said Eric.

And a way for Sarah to continue bringing people together, ending the secrets, squelching the shame, and breaking the stigma of suicide.

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10 On Your Side resources and information:

-Survivors of Suicide Support: SOS is a place to find refuge, hope and healing. This support group, open to all who are surviving the loss of a loved one to suicide, serves as a beacon for those on the long journey from darkness to light.

  • The Hampton Roads S.O.S. Group is offered as a community service at no charge and is sponsored by Maryview Behavioral Medicine Center. Monthly meetings are held every third Wednesday 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. at: St Andrew Lutheran Church, 4811 High Street West, Portsmouth, VA. For more information or to register before attending call Chris Gilchrist, L.C.S.W. at 757-483-5111.
  • SOS Williamsburg meets the first Thursday of each month from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at Hospice House located at 4445 Powhatan Parkway, Williamsburg. For more information, contact Charlotte Moyler at 757-903-1641 or email at charlottemoyler@cox.net.

-Recognizing Teen Depression

-Virginia Suicide Prevention resources

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